"An apple for your thoughts," announced Miss Western in a moment of remorse amid those interminable kept-behind hours of dusk which come to all schoolchildren who strayed.
She watched the child in the front desk lean its head on the exercise book. It straightened its back into a yardstick, its eyes unblinking.
"Can I go home now?" its small voice asked.
"Well, I don't know - you're meant to be here finishing off the sums which you didn't do at the right time."
The child resumed its desultory scribbling. It was not the only one whom Miss Western had kept behind this afternoon. The Gostridge kids, Paul, Susanna and Josey, had been sitting at the back of the formroom only a few minutes before, complete with smug we-don't-mind-if-you-keep-us-in-till-Kingdom-come expressions. She eventually sent them home because their mother would complain at them being victimised yet again. They certainly did deserve it. They used to be gypsies. But that was not the reason.
The nameless child was now re-doubling its efforts to encourage monsters to doodle self-portraits in the arithmetic book. There was a certain peculiarity in that she'd completely forgotten the child's name. She would need to check it in the attendance records but the lines of black circles and red ticks told her nothing except perhaps that there were underlying patterns to existence in the small town she'd decided to work as a schoolteacher. The Gostridges had more black circles than most, but that was only to be expected.
Miss Western was suddenly aware that a stranger was sitting in one of the tiny desks - at the back of the classroom, where the depleting afternoon light could not now reach.
"Yes? Can I help you?" Her voice sounded distant ... even to her own ears. The moment of fright had been exceeded by annoyance at the intrusion.
"No, but I feel I can help you instead." Whilst his voice was louder than hers, it was like the undercurrent of a conversation in a house next door.
Miss Western turned back to the child to see if it had noticed the exchange, but its head was back on the desk-slope, eyes still wide open, whirls and coils of its exercise book doodles appearing to flow directly from its brow.
The stranger - taller than the confines of the desk would have seemed to allow - left the back of the room and slowly advanced down the aisle, passing via varying degrees of shadow. If it had not been for this intrusion, Miss Western would have by now lit the lamps, for it had quickly turned too dark too early to see very clearly.
"I've got some homework to give you, before you can go, Miss Western ... about visions of meadows, endless childhood summers and the meaning of fruit-stones and flowers."
The voice had become more like an old 78 rpm record with a dog and horn on its label ... hissing and cracking in rhythm to the accompanying steps.
"Who are you?" Miss Western asked, with fear now gradually dawning on her.
"I'm the one who can teach you of none-so-pretties, soft hobmadonnas and cuddle-me-to-you's, and pick them from under sun and hedgerow - and, later, with all learning done, we can play frog-hop, scotch-skip and dibstones for an everlasting gossamer twilight..."
The spoken subject-matter belied the speaker's attitude.
"Who are you, please?" the teacher cried, sitting as straight as a wooden set-square, protracting the hushed pause while the stranger manicured its claws and continued:
"I know the fairies who play in the pippin orchards. I spin tales at night from beneath the bed-clothes, where further down I dare not reach my toes for fear of hurting the coily things by the footboard. I'm a version of thee, I'm a version of others yet to come ... and soon I will join the procession between the night daisies, joining songs of such sad beauty..."
Inexplicably, the words gave to Miss Western thoughts of tiny faces each with one finger placed on their pursed lips and of tenantless see-saws at sunset pivotting amid the twirling translucent girders of the golden hill-beams.
"WHO ARE YOU?"
He replied as quietly as he could. So quiet., it was easy to forget one had heard it in the first place. Miss Western's eyes weltered with tears at the fading memory of his answer. There were now only shadows moving in the early evening breeze which entered from the window. She looked at the nearest desk scored with the anciently inked runnels, the incomprehensibly scored languages and graffitic tales of unlikely love. The pages of an arithmetic book fluttered over, full of nothing but interlocking black circles in meaningless patterns half-concealed by careless blots.
The following day, with the weather turning back towards winter, Miss Western shivers. One of the Gostridges has just asked if she believes in ghosts. There was meaning in the questioner's eyes. But at least even the Gostridges cannot summon sufficient courage to ask about curses and ancient gods and arcane rituals and such matters. The other tiny children giggle as they place their palms together like pink fleshy moths closing their dusted wings, this being morning prayer. Miss Western prays, too, that she will truly forget the tall stranger's response to her frantic WHO-ARE-YOU last night. He had merely pointed at the empty desk with the scribbled-in arithmetic book fluttering upon it.
(Published ‘Agog’ 1988)